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Velma Demerson

Plight of 'incorrigible' women demands justice

Velma Demerson

Formal government apologies for historic state crimes have always seem a hollow gesture to me. Words of regret are cheap. But, on the other hand, when the government has imposed cruel and arbitrary suffering on a large group of its citizens, how can those people attain a sense of justice?

Take the case of Velma Demerson, now 80. I knew, but had forgotten until Demerson reminded me, that for nearly 70 years, until 1964, the province of Ontario arrested and jailed, without trial or appeal, girls and women between the ages of 16 and 35 whom a magistrate deemed to be "incorrigible". You needed only to be female, poor and sexually active to qualify for arbitrary punishment inflicted by male authorities in the name of "protection". (Lower class boys weren't punished for sex; they were deemed incorrigible only for theft).

Young Velma Demerson

It was spring, 1939 and the Depression still lingered. Velma was 17 and living in her mother's rooming house on Church St. across from Maple Leaf Gardens. "My mother liked excitement," Velma says dryly. "She was English, divorced from my father, a Greek businessman in New Brunswick, and she told fortunes by reading tea leaves." Velma, a pretty blonde teenager, was tired of the fights, the uproar and the bedbugs in her mother's rooming house. Soon after she fell in love with the handsome young Chinese waiter at the Commodore Restaurant, she discovered the "quiet escape" of his room on Walton St. He gave her the key, bought her a pair of Chinese slippers and soon, the two were living together.

Velma's father came storming to Toronto, determined to separate the pair. "He felt his reputation was at stake," Velma says. By now, Velma was 18, rapturously in love ("I used to go through Harry's clothes while he was at work and just, oh my dear, smell them!" she exclaimed) and planning on marriage.

Harry Yip

She and Harry Yip were in their pajamas one morning when the police, led by her father ("That's her!" he barked) burst in the door. It was the last she would see Harry for more than a year. By the time they were rejoined, her life was permanently embittered and their relationship doomed by circumstance.

Velma was taken to "Women's Court" at City Hall where a social worker questioned her. Velma made three strategic mistakes. When she was asked how many men she had slept with, she tried to protect Harry from accusations of seducing her by falsely saying "Two". And then, thinking that impending motherhood might save her, she blurted out that she was pregnant. The social worker immediately slammed her file shut and left the room. Taken before Judge Robert Browne, Velma, in her innocence, made one last error. "Just let me out and I'll marry him!" she begged.

She didn't know that "promiscuity", being "illegitimately" pregnant, and consorting willingly with a Chinese man, were all grounds for imprisonment under the Female Refuges Act of 1897. Indeed, anyone at all could charge a woman aged 16 to 35 with being "dissolute" under the Act, and she could be packed off to serve years as a laundress or seamstress in a church-run "refuge" or reform school.

In less than an hour, with no trial, lawyer or due process, Velma was remanded one week for sentencing. She spent the week sleeping on a bench in the Don Jail. Brought back to court, she was told by Browne that she was to serve one year in the Belmont Home for "incorrigibility".

The Belmont Home, now a swanky retirement residence in midtown Toronto, was then an "industrial refuge" for incorrigible girls, run as a commercial laundry by the Protestant church. But only six weeks after Velma's arrival, the money-losing laundry was shut down and the 47 young women inmates were transferred, many of them weeping in terror, to the notorious Mercer Reformatory.

On arrival at Mercer, the women were issued a bundle of ill-fitting clothes (huge skirts, cotton stockings) and locked up in barred, windowless cells with an enamel bucket to serve as toilet.

"There were no clocks, so we never knew the time, and no newspapers. We were forbidden to talk. We had to walk in strict lines to the sewing machines, and to the dining room. They purposely broke up any friendships."

Velma Demerson, who looks 20 years younger than her age, speaks with clarity, intelligence and restraint. She doesn't embroider. When she says that the frequent gynecological examinations in prison were abusive, she clamps her mouth shut and says no more. The young women, many of them pregnant, were forced to line up and watch the pelvic exams until it was their turn.

It is clear that Velma deliberately numbed herself to the horror she was living through, including her lonely childbirth, an abortive attempt to escape from the maternity ward (clad in hospital gown and a bedsheet), and the months back in prison when her baby boy spent the days on a "sleeping porch" while Velma laboured in the sewing factory.

One day, her baby was gone, "removed to hospital" as she was laconically informed. She knew nothing more till she retrieved him after her release.

When Velma was discharged early after nine months, she didn't even smile at the news. Not until the matron brought her her street clothes. "When I put on my own silk stockings, then I knew I was free."

In telling me her complicated, painful story, Velma lost her composure only once, when describing how she walked away from Mercer Reformatory, suitcase in hand, and stopped to look back. She covered her eyes at the grim memory. "I never talked about it again, until now," she said.

Harry Jr.

The frightening incarceration and the alienation of her feelings took a long-lasting toll on Velma's life. Although she was reunited with Harry, their marriage --- tormented by the baby's severe eczema and asthma, and the lack of money for his medicines --- lasted only a couple of years. Harry Jr. had a difficult, disrupted childhood, and drowned at the age of 26.

"I want justice," Velma says now, sitting up straight, tiny and fiercely determined. "I was estranged from my family to this day. I'm on the books as guilty, and so are the other girls. Some of them lost their babies."

Velma Demerson and the thousands of other women who were criminalized because of their sexuality are certainly owed some form of redress.

As for the rest of us, we should remain alert to the potential for terrible harm and abuse when men in power pass laws to "protect" girls and women.

A dark passage in Ontario's past

On the morning of May 3, 1939, 18-year-old Velma Demerson, three months pregnant and wearing her pyjamas, was sitting down for breakfast with the man she planned to marry when there was a loud banging at the door.

In came two Toronto police officers, followed by her father. "Is this her?" one of the officers asked. "That's her," her father said.

In the hour that followed, Ms. Demerson was arrested, driven to a courthouse lockup, placed in a barred cage, questioned about how many times she had had sex and with whom and taken before a magistrate who remanded her in custody in what she thinks was Toronto's Don Jail.

A week later, the magistrate ordered her incarcerated for "incorrigibility" for one year in Belmont House, formally known as the Toronto Industrial Refuge (and now an elegant retirement residence). She subsequently was transferred to the grim Mercer Reformatory for Women.

Her crime: living with a Chinese man, Harry Yip.

Ms. Demerson, now 81, has worked for years to unearth the records of her incarceration. She recently found an internal government memo warning the attorney-general of the time that incarcerating women under the act was possibly an illegal constitutional intrusion into federal criminal justice jurisdiction.

She is now suing the Ontario government for unauthorized imprisonment.

Last night, the Ontario New Democratic Party gave her its annual J. S. Woodsworth Award for making a significant contribution to ending racial discrimination.

Ms. Demerson recalled in an interview the events of that year -- a chronicle of official social control of women's lives that a historian who has studied her case and others calls "a horror story."

Hundreds of Ontario women were imprisoned, like Ms. Demerson, under the provincial Female Refuges Act, which stated that "any parent or guardian may bring before a judge any female under the age of 21 years who proves unmanageable or incorrigible."

The act was not repealed until 1958.

So-called houses of refuge were church-run institutions for women and youths deemed incorrigible. Belmont House's annual report described it as a refuge for feeble-minded women.

The institution was unexpectedly closed six weeks after Ms. Demerson arrived, and she and other inmates secretly were transferred to the Mercer Reformatory, now the site of the Allan Lamport soccer stadium on King Street West.

For the next seven months she operated a sewing machine, worked in the dining hall and slept in a windowless, one-by-two-metre cell. She had to submit to an internal examination in a room with other women. She was sexually abused by a staff member. She was allowed to speak only half an hour a day. She was not allowed writing materials, a clock or newspapers.

Because of the sexual assaults, when she was sent to Toronto General Hospital to give birth she escaped, wearing only a sheet. Her mother talked her into going back, and Ms. Demerson returned to the reformatory with her infant son.

She told of heading as usual for the jail nursery one morning only to be told by a matron that her child had been taken to hospital. She was given no explanation. She didn't see him for several weeks.

Ms. Demerson was let out after nine months -- released early because the King and Queen were visiting Toronto.

Historian Joan Sangster of Trent University says the legislation targeted young working-class women who had sexual liaisons with non-white men.

Lawyer Jill Copeland, who studied the act, says the provision requiring judges to "make reasonable enquiry" into the truth of allegations of incorrigibility was seldom observed.

Ms. Demerson married Mr. Yip, but the marriage ended in divorce three years later. She said that her son was subjected to constant racist insults. He drowned at the age of 26.

Woman wants apology 60 years after being jailed under archaic Ontario law

TORONTO (CP) - More than 60 years after being thrown in jail for living with her Chinese boyfriend, a Toronto woman is demanding an apology from the Ontario government. "I've always had this in the back of my mind," Velma Demerson, 81, told a news conference, flanked by supporters.

Velma Demerson

She was arrested while living with her boyfriend, Harry Yip, whom she planned to marry.

"They took me in this car, two policemen, down to the courthouse . . and put me in a cell there," she recalled Monday.

"A social worker came to see me and took me into a room and asked me how many men I'd slept with."

She was ultimately found guilty under the Female Refuges Act of 1897 and put in jail for about 10 months.

Until it was repealed in 1964, the law allowed women from age 16 to 35 to be jailed for behaviour such as public drunkenness, promiscuity and pregnancy out of wedlock.

Demerson, who gave birth in prison and later had her baby taken away from her, says the act has left many women living in shame.

"There are women out there who think they did something wrong; their relatives think they did something wrong," she said. "These women need to know that they didn't do anything wrong."

Demerson ultimately married her boyfriend and was reunited with her child. Her marriage lasted three years and her son died in the 1960s in an accident.

Velma Demerson

She remained haunted by her time in prison, and about twelve years ago began the process of obtaining her personal records.

In April 2002, she launched a lawsuit claiming $11 million in damages. An Ontario Superior Court judge has since ruled that the provincial government is immune to lawsuits stemming from incidents before 1963.

That decision is currently under appeal and Demerson wants to participate in the case so her own can go forward.

"It was a really racist society," she said. "We hadn't committed any offence."

A spokesman for Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General refused to comment on the case Monday, saying it is still before the courts.

But supporters of Demerson who attended the news conference are pushing to have the case go ahead, and say she deserves an apology from the province.

"(Velma) was amongst thousands of young women who were made victims by their own government," said NDP justice critic Peter Kormos.